A CASE OF STATE-SANCTIONED SEXISM?
Walter M. Brasch
American Reporter Correspondent
March 1, 2002
EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. -- Kiki Peppard sat for an interview in the 8' x 10' office of the owner of a manufacturing company in Mt. Pocono, Pa., confident she'd get the job. Not just the I'd-like-a-job kind of confident, but an I-know-I'm-the best-qualified-candidate kind of confident, she recalled later.
She could typed 80 words a minute accurately, knew most of the important computer programs, was excellent at organizing and evaluating data, had a good reputation for working with staff and the public, and was also a certified emergency medical technician. For more than 20 years, Peppard, a onetime Long Islander now living in Effort, Pa., had been a secretary, administrative assistant, and bookkeeper, always with outstanding evaluations.
But it wasn't outstanding evaluations this potential boss was concerned about.
"You married?" he asked. Point-blank. First question. Not even a "Would you like coffee?" Just the tone ofthe interviewer's question made Peppard want to cry out that itwas none of his business if she was married. But what she did quietly tell him was that she wasn't married. "Do you have kids?" he asked. "Yes," she replied, equally polite but annoyed at the interviewer for asking it, at herself for answering it. She had a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, but she didn't know what any of this had to do with her ability to keep the financial records of a company with an annual revenue of about $2.5 million, for which this man was willing to pay her all of $7 an hour. But, Kiki Peppard was still polite. It wasn't going to last. "I'm not interested in hiring you," he said matter-of-factly. "Women with kids take too much time off of work," he declared, "so I don't bother hiring them." "How do you know that without checking my references and absentee record?" Peppard retorted. "Don't matter," the boss replied. "You're all the same." This boss may have thought because he owned a company he could do whatever he wanted to do, say whatever he wanted to say. But he wasn't prepared to deal with Kiki Peppard, whose unleashed Long Island "attitude" sharpened a bad mood into a burst of bitter sarcasm.
The man further declared he didn't hire "your kind" of people, the kind who were single mothers forced to take welfare while trying to find work. She told him that it was his kind of people who paid so poorly, and didn't hire qualified women who were the biggest contributors to the welfare state.
And then, as if he thought he was still in control, he told this woman who had nothing but the highest recommendations that had she stayed married like she should have then she wouldn't have any of "these problems" he assumed single mothers have. Peppard was now mad. Not the mad you get when you think you might have the perfect job but mess up at the interview. Not even the mad you get when you learn the boss hired his niece. But the I'm-going-to-rip-this-moron-some-new-orifices mad.
In more than 20 job interviews Kiki Peppard heard the same kind of questions and confronted the same kind of sexism. A contractor said he wouldn't hire her because single mothers weren't reliable when it snowed because "the kids are off from school and they have to stay home with them." She asked him, If the roads were so bad that schools were closed, why would she risk going to work for a few bucks an hour? The boss, with attitudes forged by decades of ignorance, ordered her to leave his office.
A manager of a mail-order company had asked about her marital status, her children, and her age.
"That's illegal to ask," she said.
"Who's gonna know?" he replied.
When she said she wasgoing to file a complaint with the Human Relations Commission, the manager haughtily stated that by the time anyone from the state investigated, the applications would be missing, it would be her word against his, and that as a boss he could hire whoever he wanted. At a score of job sites, "When I held my ground and refused to answer such questions," Peppard says, the interview was over. "If I did not give in to the intimidation and replied withthe truth, I never got that job." The employers, she says, were"more intent upon learning about my personal and private lifethan my business background." A lawyer even went so far as to tell Peppard that her hourly wage would be determined by her marital status. He explained that a married woman would have health insurance through her husband's job, and that he would have to pay more for benefits if he hired single women. To compensate, he paid single mothers less than other women.
Despite her protest that suchdiscrimination must be illegal, he told her it most certainly was legal. As Peppard learned, a weak Pennsylvania Human Relations law, most of it written in 1955, only recommends but doesn't require employers not to ask questions about marital status and if applicants have children. Such questions about family status were illegal in New York, where Peppard had worked more than 20 years. They weren't illegal in Pennsylvania or 30 other states.
In 18 of 20 job interviews in Pennsylvania, Peppard was asked personal and sexist questions; both employers who didn't ask such questions -- a high school district then a state university -- hired her on her qualifications.
"The primary concern of the other employers," says Peppard, "was my personal and private home life, not my business background or competence."
The day Kiki Peppard had argued with the owner of themanufacturing company was also the day she decided the law needed to be changed. And so Kiki Peppard became a lobbyist.
"What these employers did to me," she says, "I didn't want them to do to anyone else." For more than seven years, Peppard has been telling "anyone who'd listen" about her interview experiences. She has talked to women's clubs and written dozens of letters to the editors.
"Most are shocked such practices are allowed," says Peppard, "and many have told me they have experienced the same problems." But, she knew change wouldn't come just from information and education, but had to be matched by action -- an amendment to the Human Relations Act, written in 1955, covering such discrimination.
Between 1995 and 1998, Peppard wrote to 90 Pennsylvania legislators and other elected officials, some of them twice, each time with new information. Only seven state legislators, says Peppard, replied.
One state representative claimed that the issue was "complicated because of many sub-issues, such as freedom of speech, on which it encroaches." Peppard says she certainly couldn't see how prohibiting discrimination violated the Constitution. With one representative, Peppard actually got into a 10-minute shouting match on the telephone.
"He said he agreed that obtaining information about marital status was important in determining who to hire," Peppard remembers. "He said that employers needed the freedom to determine their own rules of whom to hire." One representative wrote Peppard that women "would be better served by an amendment to federal law that would govern employers nationwide on a uniform basis." U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum(R-Pa.) said it wasn't a federal problem and suggested Peppard seek redress at the state level. "I was frustrated," says Peppard. "It just seemed so obvious that this was blatant discrimination, and nothing was being done." Finally, in Spring 2001, Rep. Craig Dally, the state representative for her district, introduced legislation to amend the archaic Human Relations Act. After several months with no action, the committee chair finally asked one of the state's largest lobbying groups, the Pa. Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to ask what its members what it thought. "The responses of those surveyed should be made public," says Peppard, "so women can determine which businesses discriminate against women in the work place so we can make a careful consideration of whom we will do business with." A companion bill was introduced in the state senate in January. Eight months later, as the bill languished in the House committee, the chairman says he will probably call for a public hearing within a couple of weeks after the Legislature reconvenes on March 11. He says it's important to know "how many are affected, if this is a serious problem" that needs to be corrected by legislation, and what support and opposition such legislation would have.
"When you have a public hearing," he says "it becomes informational and educational."
March is Women's History Month. Walter Brasch is professor of mass communications and a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era." You may e-mail him email@example.com.